When Becca Smith, a 29-year-old personal trainer in the UK, started experiencing severe back pain in the beginning of 2020, she thought it was due to a weightlifting injury.
At the time, the former bikini contest champion was opening her own yoga studio, training clients seven days a week, and regularly exercising. It made sense to her that her body needed a break.
"In my head, I'm thinking please don't be a slipped disc, because that means it would affect my training, my clients, and my yoga studio," Smith tells Health. The possibility of terminal lung cancer, however, never crossed her mind.
A “nightmare” cancer diagnosis
Despite seeing various physical therapists, chiropractors, and at-home private doctors, Smith's debilitating back pain went on for months, and she also experienced excruciating migraines. Then, on the second day of a two-day yoga training course, she lost her vision.
"I can only describe it as [my vision] just went black," Smith recalls. "When I was trying to touch my phone, to touch the screen, to contact somebody because I was panicking, I just couldn't get anywhere near it." A doctor discovered hemorrhaging behind both her eyes and said she needed to go to the hospital ASAP. "[That day] was when the nightmare began, basically," she says.
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A biopsy result promises hope
Despite the diagnosis, her family held out hope. They researched alternative medicines, contacted cannabis doctors, consulted nutritionists. Then one day, her mom received a call—it was the biopsy results.
Smith, who had never smoked a cigarette in her life, had a rare form of lung cancer called ALK-positive. While her cancer was stage 4 and incurable, her provider told her, medications are available that can prolong a patient's life.
Becca Smith . The mutation is like a typo in someone's DNA, giving cells the wrong instructions so they grow into cancer.
While some types of cancer appear as large growths, ALK tumors are more like paint splatters scattered throughout the body, Smith says. This makes traditional cancer treatments, like surgery or radiation, less effective.
To fight the cancer, doctors use a form of targeted therapy, called tyrosine kinase inhibitor pills, which blocks the faulty signals telling cancer cells to multiply. This slows or stops tumor growth, and can even shrink tumors in some cases.
While the medication may not work for everyone, they fortunately worked for Smith. In fact, they worked so well that the tumors in Smith's brain cleared after a few months. Now, 18 months later, only a few remain in the middle of her spine and in her left lung. She continues to take her medications daily.
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Why raising awareness about lung cancer is so important
Cancer aside, Smith says she's probably the healthiest she's ever been, both physically and mentally, due to the new way she approaches life. Prior to her cancer diagnosis, she says she was focused on building a business empire and making money. Today, her only goal is to live a long, full, and healthy life.
"It's just a very common thing to associate lung cancer with smoking, and with that comes a lot of blame, like 'well they smoked so it's kind of their fault,'" Smith says. "I've never smoked, and even if smoking is the reason, no one deserves to get cancer. It's just horrible."
This misconception has far-reaching implications. For one, it reduces the amount of funding allocated to lung cancer research, even though it is the number one cancer killer in the US, states the American Lung Association.
According to a 2017 review published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology, the belief lung cancer is a self-afflicted disease causes patients to feel a greater sense of guilt or shame compared to other cancers. Because of this, they are more likely to keep their diagnosis a secret from family members and avoid or delay treatment. It also results in patients facing negative attitudes from health care providers.
"I guess my story is to show that anyone can get cancer. It doesn't matter how fit and healthy you are," Smith says. "You associate cancer with older people, but the reality is that it can actually happen at any age."
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